Amazon summit may be best chance to save rainforest

Indigenous leaders seek to play key role in talks as Brazil regional summit raises hopes for Amazon protection

Ecuadorean activist Donald Moncayo Jimenez, chief co-ordinator of the Union of People Affected by Texaco, stands next to a 'mechero' (gas flare) from the refinery operated by Petroecuador in Shushufindi, in the Sucumbíos province in Ecuador. , on January 14, 2023. - Flames flicker through the thick green trees of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, where gas flares, oil wells and refineries darken the landscape and poison the environment. The apocalyptic landscape is a legacy of Texaco-Chevron and is today continued by Petroecaudor. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

For two decades, Indigenous leader Nemo Guiquita has been battling in vain to get politicians to heed pleas to protect her Amazon rainforest home in Ecuador from illegal loggers, gold miners and oil companies.

Guiquita (38) is hopeful that a summit of leaders of Amazon nations in Brazil on August 8th-9th will be her best chance yet to be heard, but says Indigenous peoples must be at the negotiating table for any regional pact to work. “If deforestation continues, it will be irreversible. Time is running out,” she said.

“It’s very important for the world to understand that we have reached the point of no return,” said Guiquita, who is from the 2,000-strong Waorani community and who will attend the summit in the Amazonian city of Belem.

“We don’t want closed-door meetings. We want decisions to be taken by Indigenous groups who are the owners of the Amazon,” said Guiquita, a leader in Confeniae, the main organisation of Indigenous groups in Ecuador’s Amazon.


Organisers say the summit will be “inclusive”, giving Indigenous peoples a role alongside government leaders and researchers in designing conservation policies. The Waorani are one of some 400 Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest.

Scientists say the Amazon rainforest may be close to a tipping point, driven by forest clearances and global warming, that could dry the region and transform rainforest into savannah in coming decades.

Protecting the world's largest rainforest, a vast natural store of carbon stretching across eight South American nations and the overseas territory of French Guiana, can help slow climate change which is powering more heatwaves, wildfires, floods, droughts and storms globally.

The summit in Brazil will discuss how to better conserve the rainforest and promote its sustainable use, stem biodiversity loss and attract funding.

Guiquita and other Indigenous leaders say they are hopeful that Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, will value their expertise in protecting the Amazon.

“It’s the first time a [Colombian] government has recognised that we play an important role in protecting the environment and the Amazon through our knowledge,” said Oswaldo Muca, head of the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, who will attend the summit.

A growing body of scientific research shows that recognising and enforcing land rights for Indigenous peoples, and valuing their expertise and governance systems, are vital for nature conservation.

Across the Amazon, forest loss is largely driven by an expansion of land-grabbing, cattle ranching and agriculture, along with illegal mining and logging.

The alignment of the leftist presidents of Brazil and Colombia, and their shared commitment to preserve the rainforest, is raising hopes of wider regional co-operation.

“With Lula and Petro, there’s an opportunity to protect the Amazon. The alliance between the two presidents on environmental issues is beneficial,” said Manuel Rodriguez Becerra, a former Colombian environment minister.

“The person who can summon up international co-operation to protect the Amazon is Lula,” he added. Petro and Lula forged their partnership when they met in July in Colombia’s Amazonian town of Leticia to lay the groundwork for the Belem summit.

Area of rainforest the size of Switzerland cleared in 2022 despite Cop26 pledgeOpens in new window ]

The two have made progress on stemming forest loss since they both took office less than a year ago. Deforestation in Brazil – home to the largest share of the Amazon – dropped by 34 per cent in the first half of 2023 to the lowest in four years, according to preliminary government data.

“The expectation is that as Indigenous people we can contribute and participate in policymaking from the start,” said Indigenous leader Muca.

“We have high hopes that with these two governments the political discourse becomes a reality,” he said.

Kleber Karipuna, head of APIB, Brazil’s largest Indigenous umbrella organisation, welcomed Lula’s creation of the nation’s first ministry of Indigenous peoples this year and a crackdown on illegal mining in Yanomami indigenous lands.

“Drug trafficking and illegal small-scale mining have grown a lot on Indigenous territories and in border regions in Brazil and other countries over the last four years,” Karipuna said.

Lula has pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 after it hit a 15-year-high in the Amazon under his predecessor far-right Jair Bolsonaro, who did not attend the last major regional summit on Amazon protection hosted by Colombia in 2019.

That summit's declarations had scant impact.

Henrique Pereira, agronomy professor and special adviser for international affairs at the Federal University of Amazonas, said Lula aims to use the Belem summit “to lead the remaining countries to commit to zero deforestation” in the Amazon, and strengthen commitments already made.

Colombia has also pledged zero deforestation by 2030.

Lula aims to present that shared vision to the United Nations General Assembly in September, where confronting climate change is expected to be a central part of his message.

He also intends to consolidate a consensus from Amazon nations as well as Indonesia, Congo Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo – which are home to large tropical forests – ahead of the Cop28 UN climate summit later this year.

In other Amazon countries, though, pressing issues including lethal prison riots and waves of violence in Ecuador and street protests in Peru risk diverting attention away from the summit.

“Ecuador and Peru are in a political mess, so it’s not clear if protecting the Amazon can be a priority for them,” said Becerra.

The summit also aims to revive the Amazon Co-operation Treaty Organisation (Acto) – an intergovernmental body of eight Amazon nations created in 1995 – to act together, and become the leading organisation to co-ordinate policies and funding.

In July, Acto received endorsement from the Green Climate Fund for the first time for a project that could unlock $420 million (€380 million) in funding to improve water security across the Amazon basin in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank.

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is also expected to attend the Belem summit after missing out on regional meetings in recent years, amid strained diplomatic relations with several countries in South America.

Leftist Maduro will likely seek to be active in Acto, according to SOS Orinoco, a Venezuelan environmental group.

“With Petro in Colombia, and Lula in Brazil, it seems Venezuela is again interested in Acto because there are now two powerful allies that Maduro didn’t have before,” said a spokesperson at SOS Orinoco, who declined to give their name for security reasons.

A key question is whether the summit will unlock new funds from rich nations to protect the Amazon. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to attend, on behalf of French Guiana, along with US special envoy on climate change John Kerry.

“A measure of the summit’s success would be if Amazon countries, and also the international community, increased economic resources to protect the Amazon,” said Becerra. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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